Weekend Warriors: How Consumer Demand Is Shaping The Work Market

As a younger consumer enters the workforce, traditional work boot, especially the best steel toe boots makers are updating selections and revitalizing collections to embrace a changing market. Led by such brand names as Wolverine, Timberland, and Caterpillar, companies are constructing a product that attracts and keeps the younger consumer not just on the job, but on the weekends.

Work-related products have a dual purpose today, because “there’s a consumer who may never wear it to work,” said Pete Hillier, vice president and general manager, Chippewa Boot Co., Justin Industries, Fort Worth, Texas.
“Most serious work-footwear manufacturers today are dual-developing their line” to meet the needs of the consumer that wants it for more than one purpose, whether working or hiking,” added Jay Steere, director of performance marketing, The Timberland Co., Stratham, N.H.


To Find out that We even Make Work Boots

“If you look at the true work segment, the fastest-growing footwear work segment is the athletic steel toe hikers, because you get a tremendous cross-over business there,” said Steere. “We’re taking some of the technologies that we developed in the multipurpose outdoor program and infusing them into our core work boot business.”

Though Timberland’s heritage was founded on the work boot, in the last 10 years, the brand has broadened and is known for more than just work boots, he said. “There’s a younger generation that has access to our brand through performance or outdoor product lines and, at this point, might be surprised to find out that we even make work boots.”

Despite equipping their boots with the most functional and comfortable attributes available, work-boot manufacturers can’t escape the fact that the look has slowly been creeping back into fashion. While not impacting the market as heavily as it did during the grunge music scene of the early ‘work boots are quickly catching up with hikers and sneakers as a casual lifestyle footwear option.

“I think the fashion renaissance is not in terms of a flashy trend, but more in terms of a lifestyle. You’ve got a Connecticut suburbanite who wants to feel like a farmer on the weekend, so he’s going to wear his authentic boots,” said Kirt Mancuso, marketing services director, Florsheim Group, Chicago, the licensee for John Deere Boots.
“Our yellow-boot business is cyclical,” said Steere, who added the company has been enjoying heightened interest in its product over the past couple of seasons. Steere also noted the yellow boot is the center of the company’s current advertising campaign.

Even Knapp’s basic all-purpose uniform oxfords and boots are back in favor of their simple silhouette and retro appeal. Having been the bread and butter of Knapp’s work-shoe line for years, such familiar “garage work” silhouettes are echoed in many of today’s casual footwear lines. “We’re finding our classic product has a great deal of appeal to younger workers, so we’re finding more effective ways to communicate to them,” said Willie Taaffe, president and COO of Knapp Boots &Shoes, Penn Yan, N.Y.


Work Boots are Crossing All Lines of Acceptance

As “the white athletic-shoe market has gone flat and is being replaced by the brown, tan and black colors of outdoorsy-type products.”

Rick Sherwin, vice president of the Dunham and Knapp Consumer Brands’ wholesale division, Lewiston, Maine, said, “There’s still a classic [work-boot] business out there, but the younger worker wants hiker variations and styles that reflect what’s going on in the sport-casual market. People are looking for trendier work shoes. Today’s worker wants something that not only performs but looks good, too.”

Both Dunham Bootmakers and Knapp Shoe Inc., makers of authentic sporting and occupational safety products, don’t target a fashion consumer. Yet neither brand denies the resurging popularity of boots as a fashion statement.
Sherwin said his brands build authentic work shoes and market that authenticity. While companies like Dr. Martens, which has introduced its industrial division in the United States, and Caterpillar chased the fashion utility craze of the early ’90s, he said, those same companies are now trying to recapture their authenticity as the lifestyle market heats up.

“We found a natural void in the U.S. work-boot market,” said Dr. Martens’ Cohen. “Statistics prove the average age of the workforce now is around 37.5 years of age. It’s a younger workforce. And we found that the styling of other companies gears it to a much older demographics.”

These brands are also marketing to a younger consumer. “We’ve [married] product with lifestyle in our last ad,” said Cohen. Dr. Martens’ ad depicts a young music road crew member in work boots climbing some scaffolding above a musical concert stage. Although he’s on the job wearing the brand’s ANSI-certified footwear, the ad’s brighter colors and its incorporation of a rock-concert environment “achieves that youth culture appeal that [young workers] can relate to,” said Cohen.

Unlike traditional work boot makers, Caterpillar approaches the fashion angle, even outfitting members of rock groups. Meanwhile, the brand advertises in lifestyle magazine like Interview, Spin, and The Source, said Christy Cowdin, marketing manager, Caterpillar Footwear Group, Rockford, Mich. “Our global business focuses on ages 16-24,” she said. “Our communications must have that youthful mindset — thinking young, acting young, and that rolls into active outdoor lifestyles.”

Caterpillar has taken a no-holds-barred approach to its customers’ attitude toward combining the industrial durability of a work boot with urban chic. “While the workboot look is creeping back, there is an infatuation with the look and the ‘right pair’ that can translate from the construction site to city streets,” said Cowdin.

“We consider our consumer as being the opinion leader — someone looking for something technically superior, but more fashionable.”

For other companies, a consumer’s lifestyle and taste level are more relevant than his or her age.

According to Timberland’s Steere, the important thing is to stand for something. “The classic yellow boot has become the icon for our brand,” he said. “We like to call it the original multipurpose outdoor footwear.”

We’re very privileged to have a product that can do that,” he added while noting that customers, no matter their age, are shopping for work footwear that can serve a dual purpose. “Protection against the elements, insulation waterproofing and durability on the job site are just as important to the urban commuter and the kid going to school.” Whether it’s Chippewa’s hard-core safety or rugged-casual product, said Hillier, “we have focused on what we feel is a lifestyle market. Our customer does not necessarily have to have a union card and a 40-hour workweek to wear our boots. [Our boots] can be considered fashion.”

Unlike companies targeting younger consumers, Hillier said Chippewa’s product is just as likely to attract the over-35 gentleman in the Mercedes as it is the teenager in the Jeep, he said, because it has a quality image. “It’s made in America with American components and there’s still a loyalty to that.”

Importers also see a big market for work boots as lifestyle accessories. Blundstone USA, the benchmark brand of the Australian work boot business, has introduced only two of its OSHA-approved safety-toe models to the United States, said Poppy Fletcher, director. “We haven’t aggressively gone after the steel work-boot market yet. We’re selling them more as a convenience to the consumer,” she said, “but [the work-boot market] is an area we plan to develop soon.”

Blundstones, she noted, are made with injection-molded soles, which not only make them unique-looking but nearly indestructible. “We sell a lot in the farm and equestrian market because they don’t fall apart.” Many vendors reconcile the look’s popularity to the 4-wheel-drive sport-utility phenomenon since those vehicles continue to outsell passenger vehicles. “We tend not to say fashion, but rather a lifestyle,” said Mike Donabauer, vice president of marketing, Wolverine Footwear Group, Rockford, Mich. Agreed Dr. Martens’ Cohen, “From automobiles to footwear, that whole sport-utility-type feeling is now becoming a way of life.” But despite work boots as a lifestyle option, vendors refuse to employ trendy styling or compromise their authenticity.

Taaffe from Knapp doesn’t anticipate actively targeting a fashion consumer, despite his brand’s comeback. “We’ve had such success with our classic styles,” he said. He added that Knapp is direct marketing its product through its mail order and retail stores, as well as through independent retailers.

Sherwin said technological advances in components are giving work shoes an aesthetic edge: “A lot of the updated styling emanates from not only innovative patterns but the supply side.” Said Mancuso, “We’re not doing colors that aren’t true to what the guy doing construction or out in the field is going to wear. That’s not what John Deere is about.”

Without chasing trends, Double H Boots “introduces new things that will strike a chord in the fashion community,” said Darren Epstein of Double H Boot Co., a division of H.H. Brown, which does 50 percent of its business in safety-toe products.

Work boots worn as fashion have been the inspiration for a men’s and women’s work-boot-inspired rugged-casual line that, unlike its core work product, will have a distribution targeting better specialty and department stores, said Donabauer. Wolverine’s new line, modeled after its classic ’40s and ’50s styles, will have many of the same characteristics and sturdy feel of a traditional work boot.

“We’re trying to target more of an attitude as opposed to an age, and we’re not targeting a 15- to 19-year-old consumer,” said Donabauer. Rather, it is one who wants the authentic look and quality of work product that goes into a variety of rugged-lifestyle-type situations.

“We don’t want to build a business based on a fashion trend, we want to build a business based on a lifestyle trend,” said Donabauer. “And we think this rugged casual lifestyle trend is here for quite some time.”

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